San Antonio FC lifts the USL Championship Final trophy at Toyota Field in 2022. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Since 2018, Mike Watts and Devon Kerr have been the voices of the USL Championship’s national broadcasts. On Sunday night, the pair will call their fifth USL Championship Final together alongside sideline reporter Sarah Gorden as the Charleston Battery play host to Phoenix Rising FC on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and SiriusXM FC in this year’s title game.
We sat down with Kerr to find out what he’s learned from calling these games – and from his own experiences as a former professional – on what it takes to win a USL Championship Final.
It’s very easy for coaches and players to say you’re just stepping on the field and going to play 90 minutes.
The reality? This isn’t the same. A game of this magnitude, it’s an emotional ride that unless you’ve been in one before, it’s very difficult to communicate what it’s like to be in the moment and the swings it can produce. So, for a team – and that can be the manager, the coaching staff, the players – it’s essential for them to be able to harness the moment.
It’s very difficult to do, but it’s manageable. Take the 2018 Louisville City FC side that had a record-breaking goalscorer in Cameron Lancaster, who got injured in the Eastern Conference Final. They still found a way through one of their mainstays, Luke Spencer, to defeat Didier Drogba’s great Phoenix Rising FC side. The following year with Real Monarchs SLC, the veteran players like Luke Mulholland and Jack Blake helped push that team to a title as the side’s heartbeat in midfield.
The best teams at every level, and certainly in the USL Championship, can do it because they know how to set themselves in that moment.
There’s a reason the Charleston Battery and Phoenix Rising FC have reached this point. What’s key now is that they stay true to the principles that brought them here.
Just look at some recent Championship Finals. Louisville City FC a year ago was hampered by injuries but was able to produce some moments against San Antonio FC. After they went down, the tried to change tactics so many times, they lost track of their plan. It’s not that a team as versatile as LouCity wasn’t capable of it, but they had success in their setup, and their changes took them away from that.
The reason you’re here is because of what you’ve built all season long. Teams need to believe they can continue to follow the process and still find success. Even if you go down a goal and it’s late in the game, you don’t necessarily need to tweak everything to find a route back.
Games, and momentum, can change in a moment. They are the snapshots of where teams can rise and fall, where you can look at a team and say “well, this is where they’re best, and here’s what they can do.”
The way you win is to thrive off moments, however large or small, that may come throughout a year. Those give you momentum. Now, when we’re talking about 90 minutes in a Championship Final, those moments are more finite, and the timeframe shrinks. Think about Sebastian Guenzatti’s saved penalty kick for Tampa Bay in 2021, or Real Monarchs SLC’s David Ochoa denying LouCity’s Brian Ownby in 2019. Most of all it’s all the game-changing goals we’ve seen over the years.
For both teams on Sunday, no matter how the game has gone, there could come one small series of events where you get this breath of fresh air that, hey, everything that came before this doesn't matter. We’re in this game.
There’s one thing we know going into any Championship Final – there is going to be someone, or a group of players, that stands out in this game. Sometimes, it’s not the people you expect.
I don't look at this game and immediately see it being Danny Trejo or Panos Armenakas for Phoenix. It’s easy to look at Augustine Williams for the Battery, but I’m not certain they’re going to be the ones that push their teams over the line. It’s guys for me like Carlos Harvey for Rising FC, who could either be the biggest catalyst for his side’s success, or the person that sends them over the edge because of the emotional override he brings. We can have a similar conversation for someone like Chris Allen for the Battery, a real unsung hero.
What you need to understand is the quality in this country is being raised. In the USL Championship the talent ceiling continues to move up, but the level of the players at the end of the roster has risen significantly as well.
These are two teams that are really well built, staying within their morals and values while working stylistically within a game to find a result, but not wavering from what the overall goal is. They can do it 20-players deep, and any of them could be a difference-maker.